According to Agriculture department sources, researchers in West Bengal have succeeded in developing a new strain of rice capable of resisting arsenic contamination in vast areas where the groundwater has been affected by chemical poisoning. Scientists working on the project for over a decade have reported their findings to the central Government, which asked for certain clarifications. Responses have been sent. It is hoped that the centre will give its permission towards the promotion of the arsenic-resistance strain of rice, to be called ‘Muktosree’, shortly. Experts are hopeful that the use of the new variety will bring major relief to agriculturists as well as common people in most countries which have reported the presence of arsenic in their groundwater resources. These include Australia, Chile, the US, China, Mexico, Peru, Hungary, Thailand and Viet Nam. Bangladesh authorities are already in touch with officials in West Bengal to explore possibilities of introducing this variety in their country. The person being credited with making this breakthrough is Dr Bijan Adhikari, who has been carrying out his research in the Chinsurah Rice Research Centre in West Bengal and at Lucknow’s Botanical Research Institute, for some years.
In India the problem first came to light in 1976 whereas in West Bengal, arsenic contamination was first reported in 1983, where the first survey showed that 22 villages in 5 districts were affected. However, this turned out to be an underestimation as little later it was found that 3417 villages in 111 blocks were affected. Later the problem of groundwater contamination was also reported from parts of Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh as well. Latest studies put the figure of people suffering from medical problems related to prolonged exposure to arsenic poisoning to be around 50.4 million, or just over 50% of the state’s population! No fewer than nine districts were affected. The scale of the contamination and the magnitude of the medical emergency made it clear that in the Bangladesh/West Bengal belt, the problem of mass poisoning by arsenic contamination of groundwater as well as in water used for irrigation, had emerged as the world’s most critical medical challenge. For a long time it was suspected that uncontrolled use of groundwater resources, causing a continual fall in the water table, was the prime cause of sub soil arsenic coming in touch with the groundwater and mixing with it. The permissible limit of arsenic in the human body is around 50 ppb (parts per billion). But in the West Bengal/Bangladesh areas, levels as high as 150 to 200 were common in most places.
The results for consumers of local rice was a rapid growth of cancerous tumors or infections on the skin eventually affecting their lungs, liver, bladder and pancreas, bringing an early death for most victims. Economic factors also played a role. It was seen that better off people enjoying a more substantial and balanced diet in contrast to the normal fare for the poor, tended to escape with only minor physical damage. Experiments demonstrated that iron plaque deposited at the roots of rice plants at irrigated fields through a chemical process could significantly bring down the levels of arsenic traces or presence. This phenomenon was most noticeable during the last month of the 4-month rice production cycle. Also, widespread floods caused by heavy monsoon showers by washing away quantities of arsenic, could help the situation improve. In rice, traces of both organic and inorganic arsenic can be found. In India the contamination of the inorganic variety is more common. Mr Purnendu Bose, Minister for Agriculture, appreciating the breakthrough, said the state Government would arrange to provide farmers with the seeds of the special Muktosree strain of rice as soon as the centre sent its approval. Eventually it could be sold in the open market, he said.